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Finance or Human Suffering

in

 

 

 

 

The Realm of Finance

 

on the one hand, and on the other

 

Suffering Humanity

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

by

 

Fernando García Izquierdo

 

 

 

 

1

 

            Thinking of what may be History’s judgement on the many crimes committed by capitalism in the two and a half centuries during which the system has reigned supreme, I have come to the conclusion that the members of coming generations will have serious doubts whether the people of our time were perfectly rational.  Just now we move by instinct, rather than thought, and when the intellect does function it is not reflection that counts, but quick reflexes, rapid action, instant results and… where next?   At school and in society generally we are taught meditation, praying to barbaric idols or a supposed supreme being which they tell us is pure spirit.  A spirit who (they say) has created the earth and all the surrounding matter besides, visible and invisible.  Often in communication, contact between humans, the most irrational rules are generally followed: there is exploitation, submission, destruction, etc.  In England until very recently, the rich were called (by the masses) “our betters”, and the poor in their turn were, for the latter, “our hands” (and Britain was once  one of the most civilized countries of the world.) The most primitive superstitions are still imposed on the people, the masses (through threats, propaganda and the “free” media), such as mass idolatry, religious performances, the fear of hell, the promise of heaven, sometimes “you’ll be seated near God”, other times  “seventy-two maidens will people your bed”.  Just as primitive as when our ancestors were roaming the earth, like the hordes of hominids.  In the weeklies nowadays and on television it is not rare to see a multitude of faithful men (less often women) with eyes half-closed and in formation like a troop of soldiers, murmuring in unison some religious ditty, moslem or christian or whatever.  It can hardly be believed that rationalism, which made its appearance in Europe at least two and a half centuries ago, has ceased to interest even the elite in our days.   

 

On the other hand, anyone who moves about with open eyes (“les yeux grands ouverts,” as the French say) cannot have failed to observe with ever-increasing frequency that a great portion of humanity suffers tremendously, and the belief in a compassionate almighty god is the only thing left to them as humans.  It does nothing, however to relieve the masses from their suffering,   due, for a substantial part at least, to the greed of others: always a minority of usurpers who through lying, cunning, chicanery and war have succeeded in imposing their domination over the majority everywhere.

 

Turning now to the question of the present crisis and the suffering that said crisis has been causing for the last four years everywhere in Europe (which I know best) I shall mention that nowhere has the stupidity of the men and women who govern our lives been more evident  than in the matter of economic growth.  Unless they have been deliberately trying to turn a relatively prosperous Europe (North America included) into an underdeveloped region, being not only stupid but real monsters or highway bandits.

 

It is so evident and clearcut what I am now pointing out, that I think nobody was surprised to hear recently the director of the International Monetary Fund (Madame Lagarde) say that the Greeks should not protest at being so poor; the children in Niger are dying of starvation, beware!  Oh, mon Dieu!  She could have been more prudent.  Making comparisons on the relative hunger of the victims of the system here and there!  What does the IMF know about suffering humanity, it being one of the causes of this suffering. Like her predecessor in that choice position (the one who was led handcuffed to jail in May last year), she is very rich.  Born with a golden spoon in her mouth, she became a young woman of great talent: industrialist first, then financier, politician, minister and the director of an international agency. 

    

All the same she is clever, and knows well what is happening.  Like many of her colleagues and former colleagues she is becoming alarmed at the way things are turning, in the financial world too.  Europe had always been good soil for industrial  development.  No development now, this is palpably evident.  In other words, no growth, and the further discovery that growth is absolutely necessary.  It goes without saying;  since the beginning of capitalism in England, everyone realised that the alternative was growth or death.  The best advised capitalists themselves talked of work as constituting the “Wealth of Nations”.  It was only when building plants was a question of days (and the law everywhere was shaped to suit their ambitions) that the greedy capitalists came up with the idea of exploiting exclusively badly paid workers in underdeveloped countries.  Now it is not enough, particularly  since communist China is growing twice as fast as ever the “developed” West could have envisaged even for itself. 

 

So, the curser as they say is going to be placed on GROWTH.  The politicians asked their speech-writers, and the show they produced together “allait changer les données” was to turn our world upside down.  Everywhere the slogan was recited, « il nous faut la croissance par la consommation. »

  

It happened about that time (May 2012) that there was an election in France.  One of the candidates, François Hollande, must have had a vision one night in bed, during his sleep, a pretty fairy revealing that he must adopt a new slogan.  “François, growth, voilà!  With this trademark you will win!”  And he became partial to economic growth, and in time became the new president of the République Française.  Only, the fairy forgot to tell him that “growth” was not just a word, a “virtual” something; it is not by the stroke of a magic wand or the brainwave of an individual genious man that history is made.  Dialectics, François, how to secure growth, development, there is the rub!

 

No need for Hollande or anybody else to come (after the people threw Sarko out) and say: I am going to do it!  Socialism!  There are socialisms and socialisms, and right from the early twenties the “socialists” who have betrayed socialism are legion.  Passing from pure theory to practical decisions, how are you going to achieve, and quickly, the passage from a state of mass unemployment to a state of full employment or nearly full employment as it was when Heaven collapsed and the CRISIS was imposed on us.  There are no longer trained workers in France, few plants, no liquidity.  Assuming that the French now engaged in a revolutionary plan of reconstruction (which is a lot to assume), how many years, in fact, does the president think the five million unemployed will take to find employment or merely to begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel?   And if others in the Free World think that there are other matters more urgent such as refurbishing the banks and other joints, what?

 

The first thing that the new French president  did, once installed in power,  was to pay a visit to a powerful, not so friendly Power in Berlin.  The chancellor, an opulent lady full of charm, received him well enough.  When the president explained what was to be the new French policy, she made some incoherent reply to the effect that she was not sure about growth.  Budget discipline was to be maintained.  “Careful with salaries, François, look at the disciplined German workers, who not so long ago were so wealthy!”  In a word, they did not see eye to eye in everything. 

 

Not much came out in the media about the discussions.  Probably  Angela Merkel made it clear that the French workers must not be too demanding.  She was fed up already, specially as “those Greeks” were horrible: they had not honoured their obligations.  Look at the tremendous sacrifices our nation has gone through since “reunification.”  She was referring to trillions West Germany had spent in its ant-communist strategy, right down to the acquisition of the Deutsche Democratik Republik by West German Capital, and the subsequent falling in decay of the East, for which the West German worker paid and is paying a heavy price.

 

The month of May was not yet over when we saw François Hollande flying to Washington, where the most influencial people of the world, styled for the occasion, the G Eight, were to have an informal meeting of sorts.  The US president, “our host”, had invited them to a Hamburger Picnic (or Cheeseburger, I am not sure) in his country residence Camp David (casual clothes, please.)  Barack Obama seized François by the elbow and took him aside to teach him a lesson:  Jesus, how had the Europeans allowed the euroeconomy to sink so desperately low!  Couldn’t the eurogovernments do something about it, issuing a few billions, say, to cover the hole, “As we do”?

 

Personally I found Obama rather cheeky, to say the least.  Had he forgotten the “quid” of the matter?  In other words, in his years at university and in the senate hadn’t he heard of Bretton Woods?, the US currency becoming the universal measure of exchange and all those privileges that go with it?  Specially after President Nixon, “Tricky Dick”, did away with the gold standard (1971) and Uncle Sam (always at war somewhere) began to issue whatever amount of paper-money that was needed.

 

(In brackets: it now occurs to me to ask, has Angela ever thought that, besides the Greeks, the Americans should not escape “honouring their obligations”?)  But no, there are no obligations for the American government, the great warrior defender of the Free World.  Anyhow, I do not know how the informal discussions went on at Camp David, but if I had been Hollande, I would have reminded Obama of this detail, and I would have told him that I am not at all sure that his own five-year plan did not seem at all successful, that a big operation to renew the railway-lines, to rebuild unstable or broken bridges, etc. would never bring GROWTH, that I had seen Shanghai, Pekin, Hong-Kong on television, and those were skyscrapers… not the ones in New York which were falling in decay and if capitalism did not now improve and become efficient they would soon join “motu propio” the dead and  gone Twin Towers.      

 

 

 

 

2

 

 

Allez, allez, la croissance!  Just now it’s growth!  Confidence is needed to attain growth.  Towards a viable growth.  No stability without growth. We want sustainable growth.  Socialism and a strategy for growth.   New structures to give an impulse for growth.  Brave decisions to respond to growth expectations.  Searching for the right path to insure growth.  But don’t forget the golden rule, three percent!  A policy of stable equilibrium with growth.  Socialism will give a stimulus to growth.  Slogans!!  

 

Mountebanks, big liars, false socialists!  Gosh, when will they with eyes be wide open look at REAL LIFE.  Three years and six months ago they talked of making our workers more competitive.  Reduce wages and salaries, to accelerate productivity and now… Back to square one!  New French president, allo, allo!  Hello, Angela!  Growth, my new policy.  Achtung! Achtung! Deutschland überalles!  La discipline budgétaire, François, budget discipline, take note!  No, François, the Greeks are not honouring their obligations.  Nor do the Spaniards.  What?  No hay dinero…

 

We must refurbish the banks, yes… but what about the people?  The innocent and the sinner, those who go to football matches and those who die of inanition, are we going to allow a minority of usurpers... 

 

And to think that not so long ago there was full employment, nearly.  It represented a struggle.  And they won.   Being a young man, I passed two summers in Yorkshire helping the farmers (for a fee) to do the harvesting.  There I met some miners too.  They were on strike, and refused to let the sycophants convince them.  At the time thousands of them were on strike to keep their jobs.  The boom years, when the capitalists were telling the people “You never had it so good!”

 

I was in love with my work as a farm-hand, loved the fields, life in general, my freedom.  I was on the road hitch-hiking one day in eastern France…  the eighth May 1954   (I remember the date because something important had happened on “the world scene” the previous day, the seventh.)  A nice Frenchman going north had offered me a lift in his big Citröen.  For a long time we were engaged in conversation.  He was an engineer of great importance, as I gathered.  Suddenly and unexpectedly he flew into a rage.  Nothing to do with me, however.  He had bought, it seems, his newspaper in Lyon, an hour or so ago, and perused it while having his coffee.  He now bent slightly back, grabbed Le Figaro from the back seat and passed it on to me: thousands of young Frenchmen had been killed, Dien Bien Phu, a most horrendous crime, the savage Indochinese!  Think of a mother receiving a letter from the ministry informing her of her boys’ death in South East Asia!  After a while, my engineer turned right on a  cemented track and into a spacious yard; he let me know that our journey had come to the end. 

 

On the road once more, rucksack buckled on my back, my left hand high in the air and my eyes fixed on the oncoming traffic, I contemplated the scene: a long dirty brick wall by my side and on the other side of the road some poor stunted houses, which looked in the grey air as if they had been deliberately covered with soot.  I was feeling cold, depressed and miserable when I saw some moving figures between the houses.  Children in a playground.  Then I saw some women shouting and gesticulating.  Perhaps the mothers of those soldiers killed in Indochina, I said to myself.  I was awakened from my revery by the loud blast of a siren above me, a noise which at once became unbearable.  A big iron gate which two stout men in blue were opening; in an instant hundreds, perhaps thousands of men streaming out of the factory courtyard  riding tall black bicycles onto the road.  A few turned directly left, but the majority went right, riding side by side together and so fast that I wondered how they managed to stay on their seats without falling into a heap on the road all together.  They were talking and laughing, dividing into small groups of friends, but still constituting a compact mass of workers, in their greasy overalls and proletarian caps, going probably for a meal with their mums or wives.  Then the crowd of riders became less dense and after a while the men began to disperse, taking different ways.

 

After that day, I saw many men in overalls riding bicycles in or out of factories and courtyards, and women too, in small groups, with pinafores and headscarves, some arm-in-arm, all laughing and giggling or simply talking.  Needless to say, the colonial wars went on, and many Dien-Bien Phus were to follow in Asia and Africa and elsewhere, for many many years.  The History of Humankind is full of contradictions, and I am far from suggesting that the war  in Indochina, which Washington prolonged till the mid seventies, has been the only holocaust humanity has endured.  What I now mean to write about is employment versus unemployment.  This is, for us Europeans, a solemn  tragedy, of which Capitalism is guilty.  Because of this, now that some honest economists are talking of development and growth, it should be clearly stated that the System is an infection, a cancer that is threatening to devour not only the working class and all the thieves with it, but the whole planet besides. 

 

But let us get back to basics and the vision of the thousand workers in a motorcar factory in Eastern France and the millions of workers in the Europe of full employment during the “glorious years” of capitalism.  If the capitalists had not been the monsters that they are, seeing that productivity grew all the time and the produce multiplied and multiplied… the idea of distribution should have occurred to them.  And then some crises could have been avoided, and we would not be in the mess we are in.  

 

There is a little known Cuban writer of the past, Paul Lafargue, who wrote a book about the working-class in which he demonstrated that workers (already one hundred and ten years ago) did not need to work more than five hours a day.  If the reader is French she or he might have followed the savage fight that capitalism has waged for twenty years against Madame Aubry for having “introduit la loi des 35 heures”.  One century after Lafargue’s book!!

 

It has been thoroughly demonstrated (also long, long ago) that even a small rise of the workers’ wages would mean multiplying the chances of selling all the commodities produced, because when people consume their income  there are more sales on the market.   In a normal society, where there is a community, people of the same quality.  And this, certainly, would be the end of that absurdity of so-called overproduction.  Does anyone think it right that a banker (or a corporation president) should receive a handout of twenty-three million euros while millions of workers (the successors of those men I saw riding their bicycles out of a Citröen factory on my way from Lyon to Besançon are hopelessly unemployed?  

 

            Sometimes I want to shout: this is madness, impossible to comprehend.  Unless I try to convert all this hell into images.

 

 

3

 

Spring 2012.  I often drive with my wife to a small historical town, in Spain, where we rent a small flat.  Our neighbours on the same floor were leaving their apartment.  They had been evicted from what they used to call their home.  In the past they had been quite happily employed.  Now they have no employment, no money.  The mother lost her job long ago: then the girl, who was a hairdresser; then the boy, who had been working, like the father in the building trade.  And just at the beginning of this year the father too lost his job: he had been retained longest because he is an experienced man of forty-four, and for a while he was needed in the dismantling of the cranes and other big material which his employer thought might be necessary in the future, when the promised recovery raised its head.

 

Most of the building industry has come to a standstill; the workers and subcontractors have been dismissed, the machinery and other material have been left rusting in the streets or nearby fields.  Or standing in the air (by the way): it now looks so curious seeing the orangy-coloured cranes against the blue of the sky and full of birds (two storks have built their nest on one of them, in preference to church towers.)  Another neighbour told me the other day that my former neighbours have gone to the grandmother’s village.  Luckily  the land in Castile is more or less empty, and therefore cheap for anyone who wants to engage in farming.  Perhaps, in times of penury like the present the redundant workers should go back to the land, land which in this part of the country, it should be noted, has been devastated by Europe, with calculations of relative productivity, here and there, with France producing wheat twice as cheaply as Castile; but this should not be an obstacle for the return of the redundant to the land.  But why couldn’t my neighbours have stayed in their apartment in town? As I promenade in the morning along the streets of this town (where many old buildings were knocked down in order to embark upon the “construction industry”) and I see many new buildings empty, I ask myself:  why send these people packing, homeless?  The answer is in capitalistic economics:  The banks need the figures in their ledgers.  A million empty apartments and houses still represent some assets, accounting.

 

If my readers know Spain they no doubt will have heard of “las cajas de  ahorro”, the trading banks which deal with all the business connected with the building and selling of real estate property in the country.  These entities first saw the light of day towards the end of the nineteenth century in the big “haciendas” in the south, where thousands of farmhands worked a few months a year, twelve hours a day, to harvest the “olive”, and nothing else.  They were obliged by their lords to deposit their meagre wages in saving “cajas” to make sure that they did not die during the winter of starvation.  With the improvement of the economy after the Dictator’s death, all these banks expanded enormously; but it was the expansion of tourism and criminality which made them rocket skyhigh into the world of finance.  Spain then became “la plaque tournante de la drogue” that arrived in Europe from Colombia and Morocco.  It is said that a greater number of high denomination euro-notes circulates here than in others of comparable or larger size, like France and Germany.  All that money (of illegal origin) had to be laundered at once.  No better solution than building.  Banks asked no questions.  I think that even the government and most municipal and regional authorities turned a blind eye to this underlying crime.  All this supplied the masses with plenty of employment.  Overnight the whole country, but specially the Mediterranean coast, was transformed into a “grand chantier”.  Millions of flats and houses were sold to Germans, French, British… but also to Spaniards, who found in VENTA POR PISOS a way of keeping the value of their savings.  I have known many ordinary labourers who inverted all their savings in flats or houses since at the time no one had faith in the peseta. In other words, in general, the previously dirty money went into buildings, millions, all at once.  Like a mad-house!  Then the “Cajas” had to find buyers for the new houses, apartments, etc.  Mortgages were granted.  No deposit was needed in most cases.  Fifty-year mortgages became common.  Inflation was the order of the day.  And the greedy multitudes bought all sorts of real estate.  I’ve heard of cases where new-born babies were included in the contracts in order to guarantee longer mortgages.

 

Then, one day everything collapsed.  No one seemed  to have foreseen anything.  And now, to see this same country, so many Spaniards so distressed, unemployed, and with their savings lost… one feels like crying.  A complete ruin, where most people do not even ask themselves questions (before “the Cows were Fat,” they say, “now they are Lean.”)  Sixty years of dictatorship and then twenty or thirty years of crazy frenzy, have created a very queer set of people indeed.  But they were still jovial four years ago.  Melancholy is now the norm.

 

In a little lane by the cathedral, one morning, I met Angel.  A few years back he did a job for me.  He owned a printing-and-offset business with his wife, Clara.  The business no longer exists; his wife has left for Madrid, in the hope of finding something to do; it is easier for women: hard work in any case.  Separations like this are common.  I do not mean to say that in all cases the work these girls and women perform is inhuman or even immoral; simply, “it’s hard, hard as nails!”  Officially it is called “trabajo interino”, and there is no guarantee of any kind.  Long hard labour is all the poor Spaniards can find.  And badly paid, with sackings at twenty four hours’ notice.  It is heart rending! Encountering my young friend that morning I felt guilty somehow (life has spared me much of that type of suffering) and got nervous hearing that halting voice, seeing those eyes!  That was the man who used to console me on what I called my failure in literature!(I have repeatedly failed in my literary endeavours.)  I did not even ask him about Clara about whom somebody told me later on,  “She’s left.”.

 

Almost every afternoon, going out for my walk after siesta I come across a woman whose tousled black hair and aged but still beautiful face carry the tale of her distress.  She looks so strange, slovenly in her velvet blue gown, which she must have purchased at a high price, and her knee-high black leather boots.  Like other women I have seen she permanently has a cigarette between her compressed red lips.  What has attracted my attention is that she walks a dog tight on a leash.  The dog is clean and brisk, with its brushed white coat and cinnamon reflections.  Otherwise, you don’t see many people in the streets.  But you do find many more stray dogs and cats than before.  Abandoned by their owners many of them obviously.  Spaniards were not animal-lovers when I was a child.  In this same town, then, I often saw a sturdy peasant riding a donkey and carrying a thick stick in his hand, which he used liberally “to measure the coat” of the poor patient animal, as he happily declared.  But with the country joining “the concert of civilized nations”, and more particularly the European Union, women first, and then their husbands, began to purchase pets, like their richer neighbours of the north.  Now these “animal lovers” cannot take them with them as they move about in search for work and food.  

 

I am not trying to give the impression that this town is a deserted place.  Not yet, in the spring of 2012.  The old pensioners’ home is still there, and procuring work for women.  One of them, who was introduced to me as someone who had lived in Florida, is now a cleaner there. All the same, one scarcely sees people promenading, or going to work, or any crowd of men or women chatting in the corners as before, this was such a lively town in the past.  A town full of knights in the Middle Ages: the history books talk of fifty thousand inhabitants then.  Now a tenth of that.  Probably two thirds of the shops are shut down, or with posters like “in liquidation” or “rebajas fantásticas”.  “Nobody sells anything,” an acquaintance has assured me.  He is a shop owner himself.  How do the people, then, live?  Millions of workers sacked in the country, and with other millions who have abandoned “la vida activa”.  Going to university serves no purpose and, as I have intimated, to own a shop, commerce or small business only gives you an extra headache.  How can people live?

 

In a park crossed by a rather dried-up narrow river I saw on the other side of the water a woman I had known in the past; she had belonged to the Juventudes Comunistas (as did her companion), where I had gone for a “charla” one day.  She looked distressed and failed to recognise me, walking rather fast with something (a miniature mobile telephone?) glued to her ear.  There are many persons of both sexes (genders, they say now) striding along with those tiny apparatus in their hands: some listening, some viewing some interesting programme; and still others (I’d been told) profiting from both “facilities” at once.  It is sad, however, that nobody seems to talk to anybody any more. I do not know how life is conducted in the homes: it would appear that people prefer to stay alone, no one invites you for a drink of wine or a cup of coffee anymore.  Even the children look at you as they would look at an absolute stranger or even an orangutan or some pet.  And our old people who generally have had no choice but to stay do not meet for a chat any more, except in one of the many taverns in town.  These have not closed.  Men keep warm there while they poison themselves with smoke and other things. But never a decent conversation there.  It happens that just before the crisis every establisment purchased large new TV sets, and society still provides the people  with football at all levels, which is what they all like.  It helps old people to reminisce: Spain has always been strong at football.  And I go promenading.    Coming back from my afternoon walk along the old canal one evening under the  silver birches, I heard the sound of hammering and voices.  I had landed unexpectedly upon what used to be the port.  In my childhood big barges used to carry our wheat north and come down south with coal from the cordillera.  It happened that when we “joined Europe” there was a lot of spare money in Brussels to bestow upon us, and our local authorities, thinking as always about tourism, spent that money on building a “fluvial port” and some two or three boats for “sight-seeing.”   But then came the crisis and, like everything else, full stop to the works!  The boats are now rusting in the rain and one of the buildings had been left with no roof.   The noise, drilling and hammering I heard corresponded to the completing of this roof.  Wooden beams and girders, men dangerously  stepping on a flimsy timber structure, hammer in hand, some electric cables hanging about, small cranes and lifts…  Was that the expected recovery?  “Not on your life!” told me the shoemaker, a man who has been forty years in his little shop repairing ladies’ and gentlemen’s shoes, and is the only one still talking politics.  “No,” he said. “The timber yard went bust and the mayor was given those beams you’ve seen for practically nothing.”         

 

How can the politicians speak every day, on the radio and other media, of an economic recovery when they know that there is no possibility of any change?  As for the unions, no revolution will be likely to lift its head for at least half a century. Shelley wrote about a traveller from an ancient land who came across a desert.  A big empire lay buried there.  All was now in ruins.  Among the stones some pieces of a statue remained.  On the pedestal these words appeared: I once was a king, look at my kingdom now, and despair!  Only sand and stones could be seen as far as the eye could reach.

 

 

Fernando G. Izquierdo

Le Chesnay, France

fg.izquierdo@yahoo.es